By Shane Nicholson
After 300 minutes of hockey all that separates the Blackhawks and the Lightning is a single goal.
But Antonie Vermette’s winner in Game 5, his second of the series, was enough to give Chicago a 3-2 lead in the series and a chance to clinch a Stanley Cup at home for the first time since 1938.
“We know that one of our strengths as a team and organization is our depth,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “Sometimes you use it.”
And the Hawks have used that depth to perfection with Quenneville pulling the strings to perfection as his top forwards have struggled against what has turned into a formidable Tampa Bay defensive unit.
Sharpshooter Partick Kane is still goalless in these Finals, but in his place the likes of Vermette and 20-year-old rookie Teuvo Teravainen have stepped up when the Hawks have needed them.
And then there’s captain Jonathan Toews. He’s had a relatively quiet series on the score sheet, registering just a single goal, but has been ever-present when the Hawks need him the most, winning crucial draws and leading a Chicago penalty kill that has negated all but one man-advantage Tampa Bay has had in the five games.
“Obviously there’s a lot of buzz, a lot of excitement, a lot of things going on around the entire event,” Toews said. “I think we’re just going to do our best as individuals to focus on our job as players and focus on the game and nothing more.”
And that’s been the model for the Blackhawks as they look to clinch a third Stanley Cup in six years: team first, individual concerns and accolades second.
“We know this is the game we could win the Cup and it would be special to win it here at home,” Kane said Monday. “But let’s focus on winning one hockey game and all the other storylines will stick out. We talked [Sunday] a little bit about things. It’s important about worrying about everything you have to at the moment … people coming into town, tickets, things like that. Get all that stuff out of the way as quickly as possible and focus on hockey.”
The Lightning face another injury concern coming into a must-win Game 6, but this time it’s not goalie Ben Bishop who’s drawing the headlines.
Forward Nikita Kucherov got the worst of a collision with Hawks goalie Corey Crawford early in Game 5, crashing shoulder first into the post as he attempted to finish a gift chance. For his troubles he saw his shot turned away and his night over.
But Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper said Sunday that he felt Kucherov could have returned to action later in the game. His status after taking part in this morning’s skate: “Probable,” according to Cooper.
“You can’t keep Kuch out for long,” said line mate Tyler Johnson, the postseason’s leading scorer. “He’s a tough kid. He’s always going to be back. It’s nice seeing him back on the ice. Still don’t really know what’s going on, so I hope he can play tonight.”
It’ll be a boost to a struggling Lightning attack, one that’s been neutralized by a battle-tested Chicago defense. Duncan Keith continues to lead all players, logging over 685 minutes of time on the ice these playoffs.
But all those minutes haven’t taken a toll on the bookies’ favorite for the Conn Smythe: he leads the playoffs with a plus-15 rating and 18 assists and has only picked up two minor penalties along the way.
The Lightning’s top line will have to overcome Keith and defensive partner Niklas Hjalmarsson if they’re going to have a chance to extend the series to a seventh game back in Tampa. Captain Steven Stamkos, held goalless so far by Chicago, says he’s confident they can finally break open the Hawks.
“We’ll find a way. There’s really no choice that we have.”
But his counterpart Toews is just as comfortable under the weight of the situation, and feels his team can rise to the occasion in spite of the added pressure of a fan base that’s waited 77 years to see the Cup raised on their home ice.
“None of that stuff is really going to help us achieve what we want to achieve. That’s where our heads are at right now.”
The Hawks have racked up 27 wins from their last 33 home playoff games are 14-4 under Quenneville when they have a chance to close out a series. Where they are right now is where any team would want to be: on the cusp of a dynasty in an era where the deck is stacked against the very notion of it.
And for Toews and Co. the stage is set tonight to become sporting icons in a city laden with them. If history is any indicator they won’t disappoint.
Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals is tonight at 7 p.m. on NBC.